Sunday, December 26, 2010

Alan Wake Post-Completion Reactions

As stated in my last post, I wanted to try to write about this game before and after finishing it to see how my opinion would change. It turns out I wasn't as close to the end as I had thought - I had assumed episode 5 was the last because the "manuscript pages" menu had room for five episodes, however as it turns out there are six and the menu simply expands after you finish the fifth. I've also had a few busy days and I lost internet access for a few more, but I suspect the real reason I'm posting so late is just that I've mostly lost interest in the game.

My original fear was that the ending would let down the rest of the game. It turns out that fear was not completely unfounded. The end certainly isn't bad, in fact I would say it mostly works quite well. However, I found it a little ambiguous - I wasn't quite sure exactly what happened.

Was the Dark Presence dead, or merely banished back to whatever dark place it always existed in, ready to emerge once again? Admittedly, while we feel that we want to know the answer to that, it's perfectly legitimate not to tell us - after all, how exactly could Alan Wake know for sure himself? Trying to explain it may very well feel forced, showing us what Alan Wake saw and leaving us to draw our own conclusions was probably the best way to do it.

However that's not the only question we are left with. Zane left a single page behind, written some thirty years ago, on which he wrote about Alan as a child. What does that mean? He picked Alan thirty years ago to finish what he started, that it's because of him Alan became a writer and ultimately came here and became the center of all this? Or perhaps he actually wrote Alan himself into existence? Again this is better left unanswered, but it does add to the questions.

Wake himself is left in the cabin under the lake to... write forever? What is he writing? If the dark presence is gone how can he still be alive under the lake, and why must he stay there? Once Alice is safe he can't write himself an escape? And the last thing we hear is Alice saying "Alan, wake up". What does that mean? Is it just a random memory running through his head? Because it seems to have been deliberately chosen to suggest that perhaps this is all a dream, in other words to keep us guessing.

Alice climbs out of the water... and that's it. After Wake leaves Barry, Sheriff Sarah and Cynthia Weaver in the "bright room", we never see them again. And hey, what ever happened to the Tor and Odin? I found a manuscript page saying they were heading back to their farm (leading a group of patients as I recall), so why didn't we see them there when Alan Wake arrives (and spends the night)? The way I read it they shouldn't have had trouble with the Taken, and yet we never hear from them again. These at least are things I would like to know - I would like to see Barry and the Sheriff find Alice, see them searching for Alan, realizing that he is gone (or is he?), see the fates of some of the other secondary characters we've encountered. It would have provided a sense of closure.

Yes, there's that word again: closure. Perhaps not everyone feels the same way, but when I invest myself in a game or movie with a strong narrative and story, I want to walk away feeling a sense of closure - I suppose you could say that I've enjoyed it and I can put it to rest now. It's not a TV show, 40 minutes and the cliffhanger gets resolved next week - if it feels incomplete I just walk away feeling annoyed.

Hang on a second... TV show... episodes? That was the plan all along wasn't it! To leave us with questions so we eagerly snap up the DLC. The main menu of Alan Wake has a "downloadable content" option, where I found two additional episodes are available for purchase. So like Borderlands, the story has been compromised to make way for DLC. You know what that means? DLC is starting to do more harm than good. What a surprise, art is being compromised for the sake of profit.

It's really not fair of me to say that; making games is very financially risky these days. When you've got over a hundred people relying on the game making a profit, if DLC helps mitigate the risks then you include DLC. I won't get into the problems games developers have turning a profit right now; that's a huge issue that I personally have mixed feelings about. The point is, I wish the end hadn't left us with so many questions. I personally don't want to download the extra episodes right now, partly BECAUSE I feel unsatisfied with the main story, BECAUSE we were not given closure. And also because I personally don't have that much time and there's a lot of other games I want to play, so I was happy for the game to end where it did.

But back to the question of whether my opinion changed: contrary to what it must sound like at this point, it did not change very much. The fact that the end disappointed me slightly means that I'm not left with a sense of how amazing the game is, satisfied yet somehow wanting more. It's a hard feeling to describe, but after finishing each of the Sands of Time trilogy and Halo 3 I was left with a lasting desire to immerse myself more in their worlds, to experience more I suppose. To an extent I felt that way during Alan wake, but not after finishing it. Never the less I still like the game, I would certainly recommend it to just about anyone, I still appreciate how good it is. Perhaps that also has something to do with the length and pacing; it never really dragged on or felt too long, so I still enjoyed the basic game-play all the way to the end. And to be honest, the fact that I spent time solidifying my thoughts when I wrote my first reaction, and then re-read it after finishing the game, is probably helping me to remember the good points.

I do have some thoughts about the game, I think the best thing to do is just put them down in no specific order. For the most part they are not meant as criticism, rather just an attempt to analyze the game.

I stand by my earlier assessment that collectibles were a bad idea. Even at the end of the last level when the game was reaching it's climax I was making sure I checked every little wooden shack inside and out, searching every little nook and cranny instead of worrying about saving my friends, wife, and possibly the world - and I still didn't find every manuscript page and thermos. They probably add replay value, if you ignore them first time you can play a second time and hunt them out. But I don't replay games, I'm just not willing to spend the time. Every time I finish a level and see that I failed to find some pages I feel as if I've missed out on something, that the experience was less complete. Of course that's a deliberate way to reward players who invest the time and effort into really exploring the game; but some pages can only be found in Nightmare mode, which you cannot play until you finish the game, so I'm really not too happy about that.

In a later level, perhaps level 4, I noticed some cans stacked as a pyramid. I realized I had seen this before, so as an experiment I decided to waste a precious bullet to knock them over. As soon as I did the auto-save icon appeared - clearly this was another "collectible" with an achievement to be earned. But of course by then it was too late; after finishing the game I checked my statistics in the extras menu. It turns out I only shot 4 out of the 12 can pyramids needed for an achievement. Dammit. I also found out that I:
killed 48 Taken with a rifle,
killed 13 Taken with a flare gun,
killed 999 birds,
used 8 batteries (proof the game is too easy),
found 76 of 100 coffee thermos,
watched 13 of 14 TV shows,

... and much more. Wow, I feel like Big Brother is watching me - everything I did was measured! A quick look at the achievement list shows I did manage a good number, but I missed out on:
killing 50 Taken with a rifle (by just two Taken - dammit!),
killing 1000 birds (by just one bird? You've got to be kidding me!),
using 100 batteries (shouldn't you get an award for using less, not more?)
watching all the TV shows (again, just 1 short), etc.

It's nice to know I got a number of achievements (including some cool ones like killing 4 Taken with one flashbang and killing 2 Taken with one shotgun blast), but I'm glad I didn't read the list before playing or I would have payed even less attention to the plot! Unfortunately this is expected in a console game these days - in fact, it's practically mandatory, so I cannot fault Alan Wake. Again I understand the appeal, I did enjoy finding out that I had "earned" an achievement for running down 20 Taken with a vehicle, or listening to every radio show. I suppose I don't really have an answer to the problem except to try to overcome my obsession with playing the game "perfectly". Perhaps it would help if they didn't award you the achievements mid-game and instead waited until the end, so that you get less distracted by the prospect?

Again, the guns are very satisfying. The revolver feels reasonable powerful and yet can be fired in quick succession when needed. The hunting rifle is the most powerful firearm in the game (obviously this excludes the flaregun and flashbangs), I would have thought it would be the shotgun, at least at close range. Not that I'm complaining, the hunting rifle's one shot kills are particularly fun. I'm glad they stuck to just a revolver rather than upgrade it to a pistol; revolvers are more atmospheric, the reload trick was cool, and the limited ammo capacity works better in this type of game - likewise for shotguns and hunting rifles rather than SMGs and assault rifles. Actually, I'd say all the weapons and tools in the game were very well implemented, even if Alan had an amazing inability to hold on the them through cut-scenes.

Luckily people leave a lot of guns and flashlights (and flashbang grenades?) just lying around the place in Bright Falls. The truth is I enjoy the whole "scrounging for ammo" element, in fact I still think they actually gave you too much - but then when you run out you are completely helpless (while that never actually happened to me, it got a little close a couple of times). This is particularly problematic with the auto-save system that saves the single last checkpoint; as convenient as it is it creates a possibility that a player can get stuck without the necessary supplies to pass a game section and have no choice but to start from the beginning of the whole level, which may have been hours ago, so the designers have to make sure that can't happen. Besides, as Alan notes himself, "it was like someone was deliberately leaving the tools I needed in my path where I would find them" (or something to that effect) - another example of how the plot allowed gameplay elements to add to the story rather than detracting from it.

There were a couple of sections where you're briefly unarmed, and once you didn't even have a flashlight. I found these to be the scariest bits of the game, and I think they should have been longer (or possibly there should have been more of them, but then they would lose their novelty, so probably making them longer is the better option). Those were about the only times after the first level when I was actually scared of the Taken.

Possessed objects were scarier than the Taken in some ways, especially when they are first introduced. Possessed vehicles are pretty cool, the Corn Thresher especially is pretty scary when it's bearing down on you.

Lights are so bright that you can't see sometimes. Normally this works very well, for example "safe havens" are hard to see out of, which helps make them feel like a different place where you actually are safe, and makes you reluctant to leave them. Flares really feel blinding. The only real problem was the lantern you can replace your flashlight with; it was so bright sometimes you couldn't see what you were looking at, mainly the yellow writing on the walls that is only visible under the flashlight was saturated to pure white so it became very hard to read. A minor quibble at best; lighting is an art-form after all.

Sometimes when you're trying to back away from a large Darkness-shrouded Taken with a chainsaw as you desperately reload, you stop moving backwards as if you had hit a wall, only to find later that it was just a small rock or a six-inch-high platform or some other minor obstacle that you feel it should have been possible to stumble around or over. Giving Alan a more aggressive navigation ability would have helped, but most likely would have made his movements somewhat "floaty" and less convincing overall - which would have done far more harm since this game thrives on immersion.

Some of the "Night Springs" episodes were interesting, I especially liked the one about the quantum suicide. You don't seem to be able to view them from the main menu though, which is a shame. Speaking of which, the ability to view the cut-scenes again and listen to the music from the main menu is a nice touch, it's the kind of thing I wish more developers would do - along with giving you the ability to fully configure all the controls and to raise the volume level of speech separately from everything else. Luckily I had no trouble here; the default control scheme was just fine and I didn't feel the need to change anything but there did seem to be some room for customization, and Alan Wake does give you the option to alter the different sound elements individually.

I quite liked some of the music. In one radio show the host comments that "Poets of the Fall" remind him of the old local band "Old Gods of Asgard" - not surprising since the Poets actually played the music for the "Old Gods". I thought that was a nice touch and I really liked their songs.

The "End of Episode" screens were too long and static. For several minutes you see nothing but the "end of episode" message while a song plays. You can of course skip, but I was never sure if I was supposed to be waiting for something or not (not, as it turns out). I feel that it would have worked better with some sort of "mini-credits" or a themed slide-show - perhaps aged sepia photographs of the characters in that episode or of Alan and Alice in various stages of their lives (which might help form a connection with the audience), or maybe snapshots from various scenes of that episode.

Alan is not a very likable character. This is initially due to the stress of writer's block and later the stress of, well, fighting for his life against terrifying horrors while trying to save his wife. And while we are given a few glimpses into his life when he's not annoyed, terrified, angry, or just being a jerk, these are too few (and perhaps not deep enough) to make me actually care about the character. Similarly I didn't really care about Alice and wasn't too bothered, personally speaking, about saving her. I suspect the slightly poor facial animation was partly to blame.

On the other hand I actually cared more about some of the secondary characters. Barry was around long enough and had enough of a personality for me to actually care about him - surprisingly I didn't find him as annoying as I initially expected to, rather I found his reactions to the circumstances to be perhaps the most human of anyone in the game (not counting Alice's screaming and all that). Sheriff Sarah impressed me with her courage, level head and quick no-nonsense acceptance of the situation, I was quite worried she would die and grateful she didn't. I felt sorry for Cynthia, living thirty years in fear of the dark. How is she going to deal with life now that it's all over? Agent Nightingale didn't do much but wantonly fire his gun and call Alan names, but there was always a suggestion that he was struggling with some huge and terrifying secret, enough to make me curious about him and how he got pulled in to all this. The point is that there's probably something wrong when I care more about the backup cast than the guy the whole game is named after. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that they don't get as many close-ups in the cut-scenes so the wooden facial animation didn't alienate them from the viewer?

In conclusion, it's a great game that, like many other great games, brings something new to the table and provides plenty of enjoyment but stumbles a little when the time comes to wrap things up. It has a better story, and it does a better job of integrating it with the gameplay, than most games I've played. The few problems that it has are nowhere near troublesome enough to ruin it, and won't even necessarily matter to every player. The gameplay was better than I expected and I really enjoyed it - for many people that's all that really matters. While the story itself impressed me, there were some issues that prevented me from being drawn in too deeply, but many people don't care at all about stories in games. Finally, it wasn't particularly scary, which might disappoint if you were hoping for a proper survival-horror game. Hopefully the rumored sequel will do a better job of drawing the player in, and make it a little harder for him to fall asleep at night afterward.

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